By The Sun Staff
A raging storm changed Parsons’ landscape permanently 10 years ago, April 19, 2000.
The tornado that ripped through Parsons, began in the southwest part of town and followed a northeasterly track, gaining power near downtown. The tornado was rated an F-3, which packs winds of up to 200 mph.
About 700 homes were damaged and about 100 destroyed, about 60 businesses were damaged and 11 destroyed. Several people were injured, but no one was killed, which emergency officials attribute to the five-minute warning residents received from activated storm sirens and other emergency communications.
Much has changed in Parsons since then: the city has a new downtown; damaged homes were razed; new homes were rebuilt on some lots; vacant lots were left for green space.
Damage exceeded $75 million, but the business community was especially hard hit: Parsons Motors was destroyed; Ernesto’s was destroyed; Ace Hardware was severely damaged; Howerter Appliance was destroyed; the Eagles Aerie No. 411 was destroyed; several downtown buildings were destroyed. The Parsons Police Department was severely damaged.
“Saving those businesses became my goal for the next several months,” said Economic Development Director Carolyn Kennett. “With the support of the city commission we offered $15,000 tornado grants which helped those impacted and we were able to retain 98 percent of our businesses.
“Although the tornado was very devastating it seemed to spark a renovation and rejuvenation of our community and pride in Parsons. We have seen new homes spring up, new businesses start and a complete renovation of our downtown which has gone from a 90 percent vacancy rate to a 95 percent occupancy rate plus put Parsons in a position to win the Great American Main Street Award in 2006.
“So even though the tornado created so much devastation, it also became the catalyst for positive changes for Parsons,” Kennett said.
Parsons City Manager Fred Gress, who has been city manager here since 2008, said he was in Parsons the day after the tornado delivering ice. He and his wife ran his father’s Independence business, Arctic Ice and Water Co., for 15 years before selling it.
“I could not believe that people were not killed or injured. With the exception of building houses that were knocked down what a beautiful recovery. The downtown is and will continue to be an area that deserves local, state and national recognition. The individuals that assisted with the recovery should stand tall with pride,” Gress said.
Longtime city commissioner and Parsons businessman Bob Bartelli offered similar sentiments.
He said Parsonians have learned to persevere over the years in times of crisis and economic upheaval. He cited several crises over the years, from the Katy Railroad moving its offices south, the Kansas Army Ammunition Plant’s gearing up during war time and slowing down after the Cold War, urban renewal and the tornado. Though good and bad came from these times, the city realized some benefit from each event.
The tornado started a new town for Parsons, he said.
Citizens pulled together after the tornado through the cleanup and the planning process over what direction to take the town.
“It kind of revitalized downtown. A lot of good came from that,” he said.
“We always want to keep that positive attitude.
“It means so much to people coming into our community,” Bartelli said.
Police Chief John Keele, who was assistant chief when the tornado struck, said local emergency personnel learned good lessons in the aftermath of that storm, lessons that will help if disaster strikes again.
A few years before the tornado struck, Keele said the city’s storm sirens were renovated. Some were in pretty bad shape and the five-minute warning citizens received may not have been as effective without the updates.
The police department had a new building at 217 N. Central, which received heavy damage from the storm because the tornado’s wind speed reached its highest point in the downtown area. The ambulance service, fire department and police all dealt with damaged buildings or vehicles. Police lost their radio system for a short time after the storm.
“It was kind of a traumatic experience because all of the emergency services were also victims. So we had multiple roles to play,” Keele said.
Emergency personnel had to check each residence to make sure no one was trapped inside. Some Parsonians will remember the X that adorned many damaged homes after the storm, which indicated the home had been searched.
The carnival was in town and its equipment was damaged or destroyed. Pieces of it ended up inside the police department, as did a can of beans from Ernesto’s. Debris from the restaurant’s roof ended up in the alley by the station.
Since the storm, police and other emergency officials have gone through training in dealing with emergencies differently. A command center is set up away from the disaster or site of the emergency where operations are coordinated.
Now, the police department tracks storms much more thoroughly with improved technology.
“We we’re even more prepared now than we were,” Keele said.
“Nobody’s ever fully prepared, but I think we’re better trained to deal with it.”
The flag that flew outside the police station 10 years ago remained on its pole after the tornado, though it was full of holes from flying debris. The flag is now an exhibit at the Parsons Historical Museum.
The Sun staff won awards for its coverage following the tornado. Some staff had to leave damaged property behind to get to work. One reporter walked from her home west of Parsons to the downtown office to begin putting stories together the night of the storm. If the Sun didn’t have power, Ann Charles, who was publisher at the time, made arrangements to print the paper at Chanute.
“The luckiest thing for us at the paper was when they rerouted power. We were at the very end of the grid that got turned back on. Amazing that we didn’t miss a day of printing in our own plant,” said then-Managing Editor Jim Cook.
Cook is now the county’s emergency operations director.
“And I’m also continually amazed and proud of how the city as a whole responded. We could have dried up and blown away, but downtown certainly is more lively now than it was before — or would ever have been with the storm,” Cook said.
Charles, who is deputy director of the Great Plains Development Authority, which oversees the Great Plains Industrial Park at the Kansas Army Ammunition Plant, often hears from visitors how fresh the community looks.
“I tell them that much of it is new. Everyone is amazed to hear the story of the downtown’s rebirth and the resulting national recognition. I will drive them through a portion of the tornado’s path so they can see for themselves. They struggle in disbelief at the concrete steps that lead only to grass and driveway curb cuts go nowhere.
“The spirit that drove the rebuilding was so united and strong and fiercely determined, and I wish that we could always remember how good we can be, as a community, when we all work together,” Charles said.